Shiny Shelf


By Stephen Lavington on 10 June 2010

What a terrible tease! I can understand the BBC’s recent inclination for putting pilots of potential sit-coms on the air, but to do the same with glossy, enjoyable and very good drama like ‘Pulse’ is brutally tantalising, especially when the aspiration is clearly for a series-length commission (and when, incidentally, mediocre blah like ‘Survivors’ can limp to two whole seasons without apparent effort).

Still, this is perhaps being overly pessimistic: whatever its ultimate fate ‘Pulse’ delivers high-quality genre stuff, though exactly which genre is hard to pin down. It’s a medical drama that’s also a dark conspiracy thriller that’s also a chilling supernatural horror show that also dabbles in great gouts of Grand Guignol.

All of these are key touchstones for a show that revels in cliche. With reference to the genres above, we have the inexperienced medical students witnessing their first operation (which goes horrendously wrong); we have the sinister chase through a darkened library late at night; and we have the moment when a character slides back the mirrored door of a medicine cabinet to reveal a ghostly figure in the background.

However ‘Pulse’  effortlessly gets away with it. The writing is slick, as is the direction, and the general sense is of a knowing compact between the programme-makers and the audience – it helps that the show takes itself seriously without self-knowing irony or campness.

There’s also a positive relish for blood-letting, with spurts of claret left, right and centre for many of the surgery sequences. This culminates in a tour de force moment for connoissieurs of the red stuff, a scene which also provides a useful demonstration of one of the lesser known dicta of dramatic narrative, Chekhov’s electric bone-saw.

The story is practically all set-up (it is a classic pilot episode in that respect). A young medical student returns to her teaching hospital after a year spent recovering from the death of her mother from cancer. There she finds all sorts of mysterious goings on – including a man who’s had the same stomach cancer removed on five consecutive occasions.

There’s something approaching closure at the end (if no more episodes are made) but in reality this is a show crying out for a mini-series, though it is questionable whether the concept has the legs for a truly long run.

As it stands, even if denied any follow up episodes, this is a thoroughly enjoyable (and bloody) bit of entertainment which sits nicely alongside ‘Being Human’ and ‘Misfits’ as a good example of  British, non-’Who’ TV fantasy.

Line Break

By Stephen Lavington

4 Responses

  1. Iain says:

    I’d agree with regards to where it goes from the pilot – as I expressed as concern on the latest Thumbcast, my fear is that PC has painted himself into a corner. Probably enough to sustain a part two, but maybe not a six-part season (let alone an ongoing series). I wasn’t as keen on the direction – too gimmicky from Hawes – but I like the tone of the piece. Very Jed Mercurio.

  2. Mark Clapham says:

    I generally like Hawes’ direction, but I wasn’t massively keen on the fast forwarded rushes down hospital corridors, which seemed to be going for a Sam Raimi effect but reminded me a bit of Green Wing.

    The pilot is from a story by someone else, so it’s anyone’s guess how much of the future series is laid down in stone. If they get commissioned there’s plenty of flexibility as to how much of the series is ongoing conspiracy and what other weirdness they might bring in.

  3. Steve L says:

    It’s not superb direction but it is glossy and slick and very competent – I think what sold me was the way the most cliched elements (the library chase, the bathroom scene) were handled: it could have been incredibly hackneyed, it could have been groaningly disappointing but these cliches actually work well in the context of the show, and I think that’s in large part because of the camera-work- credit where credit’s due.

    There’s certainly room for storytelling. You’ve got the main arc pretty much laid down, but there’s plenty of scope e.g. for monster-of-the-week plots. I liked it for what it was, and while I’d hate to see the concept worn into the ground it would be a shame for it to end here

  4. SK says:

    May as well recycle my thoughts from elsewhere here:

    Well. I found the exposition a bit distracting: characters are forever having conversations about others (‘Did you hear she freaked out in an operation? I don’t know why they let her back’), beginning conversations with lines like ‘We can cure a lot of diseases but when it came to your mother there was nothing we could do’, and even on a few occasions setting out their own tawdry quirks (there’s a medical student who actually has to deliver the line, when about to observe an operation, ‘I hope there’s not too much blood’, just so we know she’s the Squeamish One. Poor actress.) Oh, and just in case we didn’t understand the protagonist there’s a scene where she tells Patrick from Coupling (as the hospital staff counsellor — a more distracting piece of casting is hard to imagine, as I kept expecting him to try to shag her) exactly what her inner conflict is (‘My mother died from cancer… so why did I take a job where I have to face cancer patients every day?’).

    As for the actual plot, I was still a bit lost at the end as to what was going on. They were implanting… something into someone, who had recurring cancer, or maybe that was just a ruse to cover up why they kept operating on him (or maybe the implants were keeping the cancer under control? Was that it?), but what exactly it was that they kept implanting, and how or why it allowed him to come back to life in the morgue, was unclear; one of the doctors in on the conspiracy infected himself with… something, that had something to do with the implants but seemed to behave differently, in a plot thread that didn’t really go anywhere… By the end the protagonist has just about caught up to where the audience was at the start, ie with the knowledge that Something Is Going On but zero clue as to what it actually is. I was rather hoping for some sense of conclusion — I know they want to make a series, but the original Being Human pilot managed to have a story which had a beginning, middle and end within the episode while still setting up directions for the future, so why couldn’t this?

    It also suffered a bit from the problem that there actually aren’t that many Obvious Scary Scenes for a medical horror. They did the Operation That Goes Bloodily Wrong and the Body Coming To Life In The Morgue, but then they also put in Chased Through A Dark Library in a scene that felt out-of-place both in plot terms and thematically (it does achieve an important plot point with the doctored (ha ha) notes, but that’s totally unconnected to it being in a dark library). I suspect that if a series is made they may run out of hospital-specific scares very quickly.

    If you want hospital horror, I’d go for Bodies instead.